Notes from Berlin

Half of the people I know are obsessed with it. As the aura of the city has perhaps reached a point of saturation, I wanted to go and finally experience it for myself, dissect its mystique with my own senses. The electronic music scene, the food, the burgeoning coffee culture … Is it as good as they say?

Berlin, or the discrete charm of the creatives. Bearing recent history on its sleeve, the city also takes pleasure in structuring the visual and sensorial landscape like a palimpsest: one quickly feels the pulse of the new, the young and the hip; but there’s always something dour, industrial and slightly sinister peering through, from a place of the past, a material memory. Its beauty is cold, but feels like a breath of fresh air; the abundant and wild urban greenery has much to do with it. Many young fathers take a solo stroll during the day, carrying their babies in cloth rucksacks on their chests. The public drinking and smoking habits are permissive yet respectful, i.e. it’s not uncommon to see for instance, a man in suit-and-tie casually drinking a bottle of beer on the metro while getting home from work. And yes, there is quite a high population of effortlessly well-clad, good looking dwellers.

But I’m not sure whether any of this can explain the magnetism with which Berlin holds young creatives under its spell, a fact that has started to feel like somewhat of a running gag. Everyone just loooves Berlin and loves talking about how much they looove it (having gone there grants one some sort of social brownie points). Everybody wants to move there and brags about how cheap everything is. Clearly, it had become urgent for me to go see for myself. I couldn’t bear not having my own opinion about Berlin even though I was sceptical of this cultish followership and its lack of detractors.

What seems to compose the mystique of Berlin is at once its power of reinvention, and its keenness to maintain the layers of history showing through its contemporary facades. Many of the good spots have in common that they were formerly large industrial constructions: the infamous Berghain, grail of clubs, was an old power plant and feels like you’re in Doom III, the video game, meets your wildest-fantasy-of-a-perfect-club-experience. It has one of the best sound systems of Europe, and quite an exigent gate-keeping policy at the door regarding the people that are let in. Another example, catering to a more general public this time: the impressively large Tempelhofer Park, which used to be an East-German airport and is now a park that has kept the airplane landing strip, right next to the community gardens and the bike repair workshop in a caravan. Makes for a great place to enjoy a bottle of Club Mate outdoors.

Berlin also seems to excel at club scenography. Going to Renate is like entering a cavernous Victorian manor, one room leading to another in what appears to be an endless succession of private parties, with each their own DJ and theme: bedroom, boudoir, living room… The crowd is not nearly as exciting as Berghain’s, but the place itself was worth seeing. Club der Visionäre is less on the lavish side and capitalizes on its bucolic location by the canal, offering a half-interior, half-exterior venue where everything goes, from taking a relaxed drink on the deck under the willow tree to dancing until the morning [or next evening]. Less about the place or the music and more about the people, there is KitKatKlub: a queer kink/fetish club which feels like entering a burlesque bacchanal. You are invited to remove as many items of clothing as you wish at the entrance. Inside there’s everything from cages, to poles, to a pool and a dungeon, and all of that in an atmosphere of mutual respect. You don’t necessarily have to be part of the BDSM community either, there were quite a few curious people simply looking for a spicier way to spend a Saturday night.

As for eating out in Berlin, the restaurants not only cater to every budget, but vegetarians and vegans won’t get any frowns, in fact they’ll feel like the city was made for them. The art of döner of course, is well established. Vietnamese food was the cuisine that locals recommended and it didn’t fail me. My personal highlight was the delicious and unpretentious Miss Saigon in Kreuzberg. Berlin also knows how to do fusion without falling in the realm of the ridiculous. Mixing Ethiopian and falafel works great for Nil, a quick and cheap eat in Friedrichshain. Fresh Mediterranean toppings and a naan bread crust combine to make for an excellent pizza in Prenzlauer Berg at Der-W Imbiss. I also had a great vegan sandwich at a lovely bistro called Tischendorf, in the übercool area of Neukölln.

On the subject of Neukölln… it has a whole app to itself, which declares it the “hippest place in Berlin”. The backdrop of hipness when referring to a neighbourhood in our day and age is inevitably gentrification; walking around you might see the political posters denouncing this phenomenon. But politics aside, the area really does feel vibrant, creatively inclined and still in transition (towards what?).

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Berlin also has an exciting coffee scene. My AirBnB happened to be right in front of Silo, a beautiful café on Gabriel-Max-Staße in Friedrichshain. They mostly serve beans roasted by Berlin-based The Barn, and have a full range of pour-over, made-to-order filters, alongside the espresso-based coffees. I had an incredibly aromatic, fruity and balanced americano, served at exactly the right temperature. I sat down with one of the baristas, an adoptive Berliner of Czech origin, and he told me about a few great spots that weren’t on my list of cafés to visit (mostly the ones described in the Sprudge article “Great Coffees in Berlin Volume 1”). The coolest one he recommended was Companion Coffee. It shares a space with a beautifully curated fashion boutique called Voo in a nook off of Oranienstraße. Their coffee is roasted by another local establishment, Five Elephants, and you won’t need to start asking questions about what’s in your cup, the barista will tell you everything right off the bat.

I started off with a certain reluctance to give in to the Berlin craze; I didn’t want to be part of it for the wrong reasons, or at least, for other people’s reasons. But everything about the city slowly crept into my psyche, into my veins, almost in a physical way. Seeing a little bit of Berlin makes you realize how much more you’ve missed. As I was riding to the airport on my last day, I had a knot in my stomach. I hope I come back soon, I thought. My next set of reflections had me toying with the idea of coming to live here myself… Uh oh, I think I’ve become one more Berlinophile… but at least now I have my own set of reasons why I looove Berlin.